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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Special Teams Ascending Under Brian Mason

December 15, 2022

Notre Dame’s special teams had been on a roller coaster ride over the last few seasons as there was good, bad and everything else. 

In recent years, Justin Yoon became Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer and there were a few electric kick returns like Chris Tyree’s house call against Wisconsin a year ago. 

There was also inconsistency when it came to punting, field goals and kickoff coverage strategy. 

Enter Brian Mason. 

In year one of the ‘Mase Era,’ Notre Dame finished the regular season No. 6 in the nation in special teams and the mistakes that plagued the Irish at times disappeared for the most part. 

Grad transfer Blake Grupe has connected on 13-of-18 field goal attempts and is a perfect 43-of-43 on extra points. Fellow grad transfer Jon Sot has been Mr. Consistent as he’s averaged 43.2 yards per punt, but pinned opponents inside the 20 21 times and forced teams to fair catch his punts 27 times. Sot’s season is even more impressive when you consider opponents are averaging 37.6 yards per punt against the Irish. 

Notre Dame has blocked seven kicks this season and while the punt return game doesn’t have a touchdown, the Irish are averaging 10.3 yards per return. 

“The last five years, we were never in the top 25 which certainly was an underachievement,” said Mason. “This year we finished the regular season sixth in the country.” 

The No. 1 special teams unit in the country is South Carolina. The Irish and Gamecocks will tango on December 30th and Mason made it clear he wants Notre Dame to achieve that No. 1 ranking moving forward. 

“We want to make improvements to be No. 1,” explained Mason. “They’re really good in every single unit. It’s obviously a great challenge for us as we look, hey, we want to be No. 1. Well, we’re playing the No. 1 unit on paper in the country. They’re solid in every single unit. So that’s a great motivation for us to prepare during the bowl season. They’ve really done what we want to become.”

It’s not a surprise South Carolina is No. 1 as Shane Beamer is the son of coaching legend Frank Beamer and special teams coordinator Pete Lambo has been giving opponents headaches for years. 

‘Beamer ball’ is a phrase every college football fans knows as it’s pure chaos when it comes to every aspect of special teams. Mason loves chaos and knows the Irish need to be dialed in for the Gator Bowl as the Gamecocks won’t be afraid to come after the ball or fake it.

“That’s really the same thing we’re trying to do,” Mason said. “We’re trying to create some chaos in the game and be aggressive and that’s exactly what they do. They have blocked kicks. They fake a lot of field goals and punts. They’ve had a combined eight field goal and punt fakes this year, which is unbelievable.

“They’re really aggressive and really solid in the same ways we would like to be, for sure. They certainly put it on film.”

Notre Dame has yet to run a fake field goal or punt, but Mason made it clear he carries a few in his back pocket.

“If it’s there, it’s something we will always have ready,” said Mason. “You always want to try to find an advantage and create chaos with those things. Sometimes the situation is not there. You’re not on the right hash or you’re not at the right down and distance or you’re not getting the correct look from your opponent.

“It really depends on those situations and things. We’ve always got something ready to go. Two years ago at Cincinnati, we ran two different punt fakes in that year. Once was in the bowl game against Georgia. If the opportunity is there, we’d certainly love to be able to change the game with that.” 

Mason also provided a brief look into 2023 when it comes to the punting situation. Sot is gone and highly-touted freshman Bryce McFerson is a solid lock to be the starter next fall. 

"He's going to be the starting punter next year,” stated Mason. “He's done an unbelievable job as the year has gone on, especially at the end of the year. He keeps getting momentum and more consistent. He has an unbelievable leg.

“We expect him to be the starting punter and feel very confident with him as the starting punter. Really excited for his future and certainly him being healthy next year." 

It’s also clear Mason is motivated to improve an area where Notre Dame has struggled. Kickoff return has been an adventure through 12 games as Chris Tyree has returned 14 kickoffs for just an average of 16.9 yards. 

"I think kickoff return is probably the most frustrating unit right now that we need to improve the most on,” Mason explained. “That's certainly the unit we have not kind of achieved our objectives at and being as consistent as we want to.” 

It’s not just one aspect of the return that’s hurt Notre Dame as it’s been multiple areas where the breakdowns have occurred. 

"I think when we came in the spring and looked at things, the thing that's a little frustrating is it's one of the areas this is an area we really need to improve on,” said Mason. “We worked a lot at it. We've seen some improvements, but it's kind of a step forward, take a step back kind of thing. We have worked a lot on it and haven't seen some of the improvements. We tried to make some adjustments to fit our personnel and stuff. There's been some weeks where we faced some really good kickers and haven't had a lot of opportunities. There have been some weeks where we haven't taken advantage of our opportunities and it's usually as it wrongly goes in the return game. 

“10 guys doing something right and one slip-up that causes an issue. Everybody always says we were close in the return game, woulda, coulda, shoulda. We just gotta improve and be more consistent in kickoff return. We can't have situations where we give bad offensive field position like we did in the USC game and get a penalty or just have to call for fair catches." 

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